Chasing the Chinese Dream
A Growing Number of the World's Emigrants Are Heading East, Rather Than West, in Search of Safety, Tolerance and Opportunity
By Ariana Eunjung Cha
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, October 21, 2007; Page A16
YIWU, China — For more than three years, Khaled Rasheed and his family spent the nights huddled in fear as bombs exploded near their home in Baghdad. Like generations of would-be emigrants before him, he dreamed of a better life elsewhere. But where?
Finding a place that was safe was Rasheed's top priority, but openness to Islam and bright business prospects were also important.
(PHOTO: Moatasem Anwar, 29, moved to Yiwu, a trading city about four hours south of Shanghai, after he and his family built up a thriving business in his native Iraq importing Chinese goods.) (Photos By Ariana Eunjung Cha — The Washington Post)
It wasn't long before he settled on a place that had everything he was looking for: China.
For a growing number of the world's emigrants, China — not the United States — is the land where opportunities are endless, individual enterprise is rewarded and tolerance is universal.
“In China, life is good for us. For the first time in a long time, my whole family is very happy,” said Rasheed, 50, who in February moved with his wife and five children to Yiwu, a trading city about four hours south of Shanghai.
While China doesn't officially encourage immigration, it has made it increasingly easy — especially for businesspeople or those with entrepreneurial dreams and the cash to back them up — to get long-term visas. Usually, all it takes is getting an invitation letter from a local company or paying a broker $500 to write one for you.
There are now more than 450,000 people in China with one- to five-year renewable residence permits, almost double the 230,000 who had such permits in 2003. An additional 700 foreigners carry the highly coveted green cards introduced under a system that went into effect in 2004.
China's openness to foreigners is evident in the reemergence of ethnic enclaves, a phenomenon that hasn't been seen since the Communist Party came to power in 1949. Larger and more permanent than those frequented by expatriate businessmen on temporary assignment, the new enclaves evoke pre-revolutionary China, where cities such as Shanghai bustled with concessions dominated by French, British and Japanese.
The Wangjing area of northern Beijing is a massive Koreatown, complete with groceries, schools, churches, karaoke bars and its own daily newspapers. A few miles away, in the city's Ritan Park, signs in Cyrillic script and vendors speaking Russian welcome people from the former Soviet republics. In Yiwu, a city in the eastern province of Zhejiang that is the home of the world's largest wholesale market, “Exotic Street” lights up at night with stands filled with smoking kebabs, colorful hookahs and strong sugared tea for the almost exclusively Arab clientele.
Communist China's first attempt to make friends with outsiders and encourage cultural exchange came during the 1960s and '70s, as part of a campaign for ideological leadership in the developing world. China sought to spread socialism and unite the farmers of the world.
Today, its efforts to woo developing countries are driven by more calculated, strategic goals, most notably its need to secure long-term contracts for oil, gas and minerals to fuel its booming economy.
As part of this campaign, China has sought to portray itself as more open to Islam than other non-Muslim nations.
Over the past 20 years, the government has gradually allowed its own Muslim minority to rebuild institutions that were devastated by state-sponsored attacks on Islam during the Cultural Revolution. Islamic schools have opened, and scholars of Islam are being encouraged to go abroad to pursue their studies. Unlike Christians, China's estimated 20 million Muslims are considered an ethnic minority, a status that confers certain protections and privileges.
“In America, for people with my religion there can be a lot of problems,” said Adamou Salissou, 25, from Niger. “The image they have of Muslims is that they are terrorists. Chinese don't have a problem with religion. They think, 'It's your religion and it's okay.' ”
With funds from a Chinese government scholarship, Salissou is pursuing a master's degree in biochemistry and molecular biology at Xiamen University in Fujian province, where a community of Arab traders thrived in the 7th and 8th centuries. Salissou's brother Nour Mahamane, 23, joined him this fall and is studying for a master's degree in petrochemistry in Shanghai.
Mosques in areas such as Yiwu, where foreigners are concentrated, have been given more freedom than some others, which are under strict state control. Officials at the mosque here estimate that more than 20,000 Muslim immigrants, about 1,000 of them from Iraq, have settled in the area over the past five years.
“The main feeling is that they are free here,” said Ma Chunzhen, the imam. “People are buying apartments and cars. They want to live here for good.”
When he first arrived in Yiwu from Beijing in 2001, Ma said, there were just over 100 people in his congregation. Services were held in a rented space in a hotel room. These days, up to 8,000 people attend the Friday prayer service in the shiny new mosque that was converted from a silk factory's warehouse with money from foreigners who had settled in the city.
One prong of China's efforts to strengthen ties with the developing world is scholarships, a program that began in 1949 when the People's Republic was founded but that has been ramped up aggressively in recent years. In 1996, China offered about 4,200 scholarships. Last year, the number was 8,500.
Among the recipients are children of the elites in countries where China hopes to forge friendships. Salissou's father, for instance, works in Niger's presidential protocol office; Niger is rich in uranium, which China needs for its nuclear plants.
Benjamim Amade, 21, who is pursuing a bachelor's degree in public administration at Xiamen University, heard about the scholarships through his uncle, an ambassador for Mozambique, where China buys timber it needs for construction.
The students' interest in China is fueled by the rags-to-riches stories of self-made entrepreneurs.
Moatasem Anwar's is typical. The youngest of 12 children, Anwar grew up in Iraq's Kurdish-populated north during Saddam Hussein's rule. His family made a meager living selling socks at a bazaar in Irbil.
After the U.S.-led invasion, one of his older brothers had the idea of trying to start a business by importing goods from China to Iraq. Anwar came to China in October 2003 to help out. When he arrived at the packed airport with its strange smells and sights, his immediate reaction was, “I think one week — quickly I go back.”
But doing business with China turned out to be better than anyone had imagined. With their first batch of profits, the family traded their stand at the market in Irbil for a store. Soon they expanded to 10 stores. Then they built a factory and five warehouses. “Now we have a building — six floors. We rent to other people,” Anwar said. The family not only had a business but a company, al-Sabeel General Trading.
Anwar, 29, had enough money to move himself and his wife, Bala Barzam, 27, formerly a junior high school teacher, to China. He's planning to send his two children, 2-year-old Sava and 8-month-old Ahmad, to a Chinese school. His older brother, two cousins and their families have also joined him in Yiwu.
Rasheed, the former Baghdad resident, has had similar good fortune in China.
When he told his children they were moving to China, he said, everyone cried. They didn't want to leave their home. But in the past eight months, he said, life has become comfortable.
“I like the peace,” Rasheed said. “I don't want to hear the bombs and the hatred.”
But there are limits to China's welcome.
It's nearly impossible for foreigners who don't have Chinese ancestry to obtain citizenship, and like anywhere else, China has had its share of racial misunderstandings and clashes with foreigners.
The most infamous took place in the city of Nanjing in 1988, when a dispute between a campus security guard and two African students degenerated into a fistfight and ended with African students seeking refuge at their embassies after fleeing a mob that was shouting “Kill the black devils!”
Tensions within China's black community rose again recently after police arrested about 30 African and Caribbean men in an anti-drug operation in Beijing on Sept. 22. Some witnesses accused China of racial profiling and claimed that some men were beaten. Beijing's Public Security Bureau has denied race was a factor in the operation.
In Yiwu, there was anger in the Iraqi community after an Iraqi man, Mostafa Ahmed Alazawi, was found dead in his rented home on March 30. His family wanted him to be buried in China and applied to the city for a piece of land. The city ruled that foreigners could not be buried in China, forcing the family to ship the body back to Iraq. The decision fueled outrage among the Iraqis. Through a friend, the family declined to be interviewed.
Anwar said that despite the tensions he's happier to be in China than elsewhere in the world.
“My brother lived in the Netherlands for nine years,” he said. “There, if you are a foreigner, you are below them. When he came to China, everything was different. Here, if you are a foreigner, you are treated better than Chinese.”
Researcher Yang Weina contributed to this report.